An atmospheric winter train ride connects the present to the past, and a father's experience to his son's
The title of this week's poem, Peter McDonald's "The Overcoat" inevitably recalls Gogol's eponymous short story in which a poor, industrious clerk is destroyed by the violence and bureaucracy of 19th-century St Petersburg. There's a tangible chill in the weather and the politics of both poem and story, and both have a ghost, but I'm reminded less of Gogol than of Philip Larkin in "The Whitsun Weddings". McDonald's poem, too, describes, and almost is, a train journey. In unhurried, expansive stanzas, a solitary narrator observes the passengers' comings and goings. This narrative, however, enfolds a further story, told through recollections of a particular individual, whom I take to be the speaker's father.
The poem's slant rhyming emphasises the way the present imperfectly echoes the past, with the four-fold "A" rhyme of each stanza nevertheless insisting on recurrence. Some ghostly atmospherics initiate the convergence of present and previous selves, and of son and father: the shared "early dark", fierce rain, chill air. The men who crowd onto the 21st-century train, after their patient, storm-soaked queuing, are "agents for winter afternoons/ and entrepreneurs of the cold" – a depiction that may suggest a light gibe at market-driven policies, while lending a significant unreality to these figures.
Damp and cold suffuse every stanza. Whatever the strange odour of cold is made of, this poem conveys it. A rarer smell, of cigarette smoke, eases the transition into Belfast, 1972. "Behind me by a couple of hours," the father is returning by bus from the Inglis bakery. The working day for both men concludes with tantalisingly near synchrony.
"Where he hangs up his overcoat" in stanza four indicates the "breezeblock, ground-floor" childhood flat, but the narrative swerves quickly back to the haunted present. The train seems to pass through time, carrying the innumerable shades in whose "infinite/ line of shapes" the singular ghost, the poem's ghost, risks being lost.
Earlier, the men walked "in envelopes of smoke and cold". Similarly, the remembered overcoat envelops little pay-day gifts, "sealed up" in their cardboard boxes. The precision which has noted proper nouns and bus numbers now records the pre-decimal prices of the toys – and, again, numbers share the potency of the poem's quietly-measured diction. Like the other objects evoked, the toys have solidity, but, by emphasising their unhandled coldness, the poet flips them into mystery. Yet nothing gothic or sentimental taints the chilly haunting. Never fully embodied, never warm, the coat is only momentarily sinister, when the child sees its empty shape in stanza four.
The incident that, one night, forced a late homecoming, was foreshadowed by the "hold-ups" on the road at the end of stanza two. It's outlined in general and unemotional terms in the climactic sixth and seventh stanzas, with a faint touch of extra-dry humour in the litotes of "pointed questions", "whoever they had come to see", etc. The chill comes indoors, as it did, benevolently, in stanza five, "with little said". The hostages are lined up; when released, they gather in a similar line, so that we recall the "lines" of the opening stanzas. But now they are reprieved by a perfect line of description, "smoking, and wondering, and free".
In the last stanza, there's "a grey overcoat", the indefinite article detaching the coat from its owner – fellow commuter or lingering ghost. The speaker, about to alight from his train, is "weighed down" with his own "dead papers" and the abundance (and shallow masculinity?) of the remembered gifts: "chilly racing cars/… brittle plastic soldiers." Son blends into father, and, in a forlorn, compelling final plot twist, he, too, is late coming home.
Metrically varied, the lines are mostly octosyllabic, and that count-of-eight seems fundamental, even where the audible syllable count is less, as in stanza three, line eight. It gives rise to some lively, unpredictable effects of substitution, contrasting with the repetition of the words and images that sustain atmosphere and form less escapable patterns.
"The Overcoat" was first included in McDonald's often elegiac, 2007 volume, The House of Clay, and can currently be found in Carcanet's edition of the five-volume Collected Poems, With its wide range of themes, and high proportion of memorable poems and translations, this "collected" is among the very few worth reading from cover to cover.
We stop, and doors come open then
to let the early dark blow in
from whatever rain-raked platform
is just outside the lighted train,
as men who lined up in a storm
crush in to seats, bringing a chilled
February air along with them,
agents for winter afternoons,
and entrepreneurs of the cold.
On business now, and going home,
I'm no more than a few steps from
Belfast in 1972:
the cigarette smell is the same
in the same draught, that pushes through
with men who walk in envelopes
of smoke and cold from a slow queue
and onto buses with no room
in the stops and starts, the hold-ups.
Behind me by a couple of hours,
in winter downpours, sleet showers,
he comes by bus from Inglis's,
and the breadmen and the bakers,
to town, and waits again, and catches
the number 24 or 32
home, back over his own traces,
to a breezeblock, ground-floor
Braniel flat; to damp and mildew.
Where he hangs up his overcoat
the cold begins to radiate,
shaped out, like the body's ghost,
by the hall door at night;
and now the cold that presses past
me here is maybe a ghost's trail,
the time it fills already lost
and its place lost in an infinite
line of shapes: indistinct, frail.
On Friday nights, the coat sealed up
some toy bought from a closing shop
for a shilling or for one and six,
coming to me still cold, its shape
and size all cold, a cardboard box
with a soldier or a car inside,
and the toy and winter night would mix
together, as outside would slip
inside: with gifts and little said.
He was late one night, and came in
quietly; quietly sat down
and ate his tea, then told us how
at work for half the afternoon
the bakery had hosted two
men with guns, their faces masked,
who lined them all up in one row
on the cold floor, to wait, locked in,
for pointed questions to be asked.
The two men left eventually.
Whoever they had come to see
that day they missed, and would find
easily on some other day;
so, standing where they had been lined
up, as if in some anteroom,
everyone talked as they stayed behind,
smoking, and wondering, and free.
Little to do then but go home.
Beside me, a grey overcoat
in the train here is sending out
a smoky aura of sheer cold
invisibly in the carriage-light;
but when I get up, and take hold
of a case packed with dead papers
and a book or two, I come home late,
weighed down with chilly racing cars
and with brittle plastic soldiers.